I approach a romance set in the Middle Ages with skepticism. All too frequently, what I find are undeniably modern characters playing out their story on a medieval stage. In A Knight to Cherish Angie Ray has avoided this trap and has given us instead a delightful romp set in 1214.
The year is 1998 and Francine Peabody is an accountant, engaged -- for the past five years -- to another accountant. Her grandmother raised Francine, and it shows. Not only has she saved herself for marriage, she even believes that a woman should never mention her menstrual cycle to a man unless they are married. Francine is not a swinger.
The author has not wasted a great deal of effort on devising a high tech method of transporting Francine back to the 13th century. Francine's neighbor, Mrs. Rappaport, gives her a magical necklace to wear, coaxes her into promising to "civilize mankind" and, hey, presto! Francine is sitting in the middle of a fairy circle of mushrooms, about to be attacked by two ragged vagrants.
As is compulsory whenever a fair maiden is threatened, Francine is quickly rescued by Sir Garrick, a knight in shining armor, and carried off to Pelsworth Castle. For almost the length of the ride from the fairy circle to the Castle, Francine is grateful to and in love with her rescuer.
Once at the Castle, however, Francine has a rude introduction to life in 1214. First, Garrick tears all her clothes off, telling her she is dressed like a whore. He stops short of raping her, but not before he gives her the scare of her life.
The shock of having her clothes ripped off is only the first of many Francine experiences. Francine is no historian, so life in the 13th century is a series of unpleasant surprises. No forks. No running water. No privacy. No manners. Civilizing mankind is going to be uphill work indeed.
Sir Garrick is no help. Back from the Crusades, he has used the fortune he won there to buy land from King John. When Pelsworth Castle…which is still being built…is completed and King John approves, Garrick has a tentative promise from the king that he will be married to the king's ward. With Lady Odelia will come manors, property, and power, all of which add up to security in an insecure world. Garrick is determined to ignore any attraction he feels toward Francine.
The stage has thus been set for a series of comic encounters between the naïve but determined Francine and her hardheaded knight. The charm of their romance is paralleled by the story of Francine's reaction to being wrenched unwillingly out of her world -- she misses it intensely -- and by her adaptation to the new, uncomfortable world she finds herself in. This second story line, almost as important as the romance, gives the narrative added complexity, as well as increasing the opportunities for humor.
A pair of caveats: I did not find the schemes of Mrs. Rappaport, in her 13th century incarnation, or her competition with her male counterpart, particularly interesting. Nor have I made up my mind regarding the twist Ray gives the plot in its final chapters. Initially, I was both surprised and disconcerted, but it worked. Without the surprise ending, even though I thoroughly enjoyed A Knight to Cherish, I probably would not have reread it. With it, I definitely will, if only to decide whether Ray played fair throughout the novel.
--Nancy J. Silberstein